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Perfect Pairings: Frick Draws on Van Dyck’s Drawings to Illuminate His Portrait Paintings

It takes not only brains but also curatorial brawn (which powerful institutions are in the best position to exert) to wrest seldom loaned choice works from discerning, possessive lenders. One of the many joys of two recently opened curatorial triumphs in New York—Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture (to June 5) at the Frick Collection and Degas: A Strange New Beauty (to July 24) at the Museum of Modern Art (more on that in a later post)—was a chance to see pairs of works that belong together and richly inform each other, but are usually separated by the vagaries of far-flung ownership:












L: “François Langlois, Playing a Musette,” 1641(?), Frits Lugt Collection, Fondation Custodia, Paris
R: “François Langlois, Playing a Musette,” 1641(?), National Gallery, London, and Barger Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Some of the show’s pairs of preparatory works and finished paintings have been “reunited for the first time since they left Van Dyck’s studio several hundred years ago,” according to the show’s press release.

As illustrated above by comparison of Langlois’ lively expression in the vibrant painting with his vacant gaze in the drawing (not to mention the changes in his hat, the better to admire his face), Van Dyck, “from the beginning of his career, seems to have used paper to work out a composition rather than to capture the details of a likeness,” in the words of the lead catalogue essay by Stijn Alsteens, the Metropolitan Museum’s curator of drawings and prints (who co-curated the Frick show with Met assistant curator Adam Eaker). The informed eye of this drawings expert is evident throughout the installation:

 Stijn Alsteens, being eyed by "Portrait Study of Man, Looking Left," 1634, private collection, which "resurfaced in 2000" on the BBC's "Antiques Roadshow" Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Stijn Alsteens, being eyed by “Portrait Study of Man, Looking Left,” 1634 (private collection), rediscovered in 2000 on the BBC’s “Antiques Roadshow”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Working at breakneck speed during his nine-year sojourn in London, where he died in 1641 at age 42, Van Dyck is thought to have completed an average of one portrait every two weeks. In all, some 260 of his portraits survive. The Frick’s wide-ranging show is organized chronologically, according to the three locales where he worked—Antwerp, Italy, England.

Alsteens tells us in the catalogue that “only the face had to be painted in the presence of the sitter himself and large parts of the composition could be worked on at other times by assistants specializing in specific parts of the portrait, such as the costume or the background landscape.”

Below are more examples of drawing/painting pairings that engage viewers in close comparative analysis of the swiftly executed preparatory works and the finished paintings’ refinements in composition and physiognomy. These yield fascinating insights (elucidated in both the labels and the catalogue), not only into Van Dyck’s genius, but also into his working methods, which involved rapidly executed drawings, the use of studio assistants to help paint the costumes (guided by his drawings) and his own refinements of facial likenesses, executed directly on the canvas.













L: “Portrait Study of Nicholas Lanier,” c. 1628, Scottish National Gallery
R: “Nicholas Lanier,” c. 1628, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Photos by Lee Rosenbaum















L: “Queen Henrietta Maria with Jeffrey Hudson,” 1633, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris
R: “Queen Henrietta Maria with Jeffrey Hudson,” 1633, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

As demonstrated in the above drawing/painting pairing of the Charles I’s queen, Van Dyck sometimes worked out the details of sumptuous attire by hiring stand-ins to model garments lent to his studio.

The Frick’s definitive, brilliantly explicated survey—the first major Van Dyck show in the U.S. in 20 years and the Frick’s largest show ever, in terms of number of objects—made me rub my eyes, wondering if I was at actually at the Metropolitan Museum, where such ambitious projects are typically encountered.

In a sense, I was: Not only is Ian Wardropper, the Frick’s director, well versed in the ways of the Met, as its former longtime head of European sculpture and decorative arts, but the show’s two curators are current Met hands and the Frick’s chief curator, Xavier Salomon, who contributed to the Van Dyck catalogue, was also briefly a Met curator:

L to R: Ian Wardropper, Frick director; Xavier Salomon, Frick chief curator and former Met curator; Stijn Alsteens, Met curator of drawings and prints; Adam Eaker, former Frick curatorial fellow, now assistant curator of Northern Baroque painting at the Met Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

L to R: Ian Wardropper, Frick director; Xavier Salomon, Frick chief curator and former Met curator; Stijn Alsteens, Met curator of drawings and prints; Adam Eaker, former Frick curatorial fellow, now assistant curator of Northern Baroque painting at the Met
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

So I asked Alsteens the obvious question: Why was this show not at the Met, since he and his co-organizer, Eaker, are curators there?

What I thought might be a complicated question got a simple answer: Henry Clay Frick was a major Van Dyck collector and the eight paintings that he owned (six of which are in the show) are, by the strict decree of the Frick’s founder, not allowed to travel. The Frick is the only venue for this exhibition.

The Met, of course, was a generous lender, including the show’s signature work, which directly confronts visitors when they enter:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

It is the artist’s definitive self-portrait:

"Self-Portrait," 1620-21, Metropolitan Museum Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Self-Portrait,” 1620-21, Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

There’s a reason why I took some of my photos (like the one above) at a weird angle. And therein lies one of the show’s two glaring defects—its lighting. If you stand directly in front of some of the paintings, they look like this:

"Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio," 1623, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio,” 1623, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s a closer look (from an angle) of the Cardinal’s monumental portrait, which has left Italy only once before. Van Dyck’s distinction as a portraitist is his ability to capture not only his subjects’ likenesses, but also their character:


In capturing the inner essence of his sitters, Van Dyck was head and shoulders above the accomplished old master now receiving the full Met treatment—Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Largely self-taught, she deployed her social skills to attract an aristocratic following (primarily female subjects)—most notably France’s Queen Marie Antoinette. By contrast, Van Dyck had the best possible professional mentor, Rubens, and aristocrats (most notably England’s King Charles I) felt privileged to pose for him.

As I mentioned, the glare from the lighting (which perhaps was tweaked after I tweeted about it) was one of two defects in this show.

Here’s the other:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As I observed in my previous post endorsing the Frick’s expansion plans (now altered to save its Russell Page garden), its “cramped underground special-exhibition galleries are inadequate, unappealing and unworthy of the superlative quality of much that has been displayed there.” For blockbuster shows (as you can see above), these galleries are not intimate; they’re egregiously overcrowded.

The Frick’s recently revised expansion plans will also address another problem with the Frick’s current physical plant, which I only discovered at the Van Dyck preview. I’m now limping around with a bum knee, making stairs difficult, so I asked to take an elevator to and from the downstairs galleries. This was more complicated than expected: A guard had to be called to accompany me, because the path from the elevator to the lower level exhibition galleries takes you through non-public areas, past the office where security screens are monitored.

Happily, the expansion plan is said to include “easy access for the Frick’s audiences, including those with disabilities.” (Mine, I hope, will be temporary.)

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